Bye-Bye, Buh-ber

My nineteen-month-old daughter has a new word: Buh-ber. Normally I would be thrilled by this development, but it’s her word for Booker, the name of our fifteen-year-old dog, who I was hoping would die before she learned to name him. Of course, what I really want is for Booker to live forever, but because that’s not possible, I want him to quietly slip away without any of us noticing, as if scrubbed from our memories like Joel’s Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. As he teeters terribly close to that time, his great big body frequently betraying him, it’s more than I can bear to imagine going through all we inevitably have to should it come down to our deciding when and how he goes. What haunts me most as we brace our family, our home, for Booker’s death, is how to prepare those who can not be prepared—like my wee daughter and my other dog, Safari, Booker’s best friend. I keep picturing them in the days and weeks after, wandering together from room to room, my daughter’s little voice chanting, “Buh-ber? Buh-ber?” I keep hearing myself in response saying what I always say to ease her separation from beloved things: “Bye-Bye, Buh-ber.” At that, she will wave.

In a word, Booker is old. Fifteen is ancient for a dog his size. Over the last couple of years, his back end has weakened to a place of sincere disability. A few months ago, x-rays revealed a kind of structural collapse from mid-back to tail. This was no surprise. He can walk, but unreliably. A change in direction can bring him right to the ground. He can’t wag anymore and instead uses his tail as a rudder the way cheetahs do when they reach their highest speeds, only Booker uses his just to keep himself up. He’s on a daily painkiller, though even the vet doesn’t think he’s in much pain. He does wear the niftiest harness that helps us help him when he can’t get up. (It’s called the Web Master Harness by Ruff Wear; I swear, it has saved us all.) He spends most of his time on his bed, which we moved into the kitchen once he started losing control of his bowels in the night. Every morning when he stands up we find a little present where he was lying. I told my husband the other day that it’s like collecting eggs from a chicken. He looked at me. “Except it’s poop from a dog,” I acknowledged.

Most of the time Booker still gets up and down our three outdoor steps connecting our porch to the yard, but sometimes his back legs give out and he falls. The other night, before bed, I called into the cold dark for him and then saw him lying at the bottom of the stairs. He hadn’t even made it to the yard yet. It’s similarly hit or miss whether or not he will make it the seven feet to his water bowl. We don’t take him for walks anymore, except around our yard, because the last time we did he dragged his back foot until his nail wore down to the quick and bled everywhere. He can’t jump into his favorite western New York lake anymore because the last time he did my husband and his brother had to jump in after him or he would have drowned.

All that said, Booker still eats like the winner of a Coney Island Hot Dog Eating contest. He still wrestles as best he can with Safari, who has learned to play with Booker on the floor instead of air-born in the yard. He still licks my children up and down and cleans the floor after every meal they’ve half-dropped, half-eaten. He still watches us with such soulful intensity that we can’t possibly pass by him without one more belly scratch. So indeed, in addition to the question of how will we do this there is also the question of when.

People often talk about eyes—that when someone is ready to let go, you can see it in their eyes, like they’ve already left a little bit. Booker’s balance may be gone, but his eyes are still so full and wide sometimes it feels like you could fall into them. He quivers when he sees us, lights up from head to tail when my husband, the love of his life, comes home. He still licks our palms and clambers to be closer, always closer, all the time. He seems more in occupational discomfort than physical pain. It’s clearly a bummer to him not to be able to get reliably from Point A to Point B, but once he falls, is it so bad there in that middle ground? I am sure that it’s scary to fall in the night and, unless his whimpers wake us one floor above, to have to stay stuck there until someone comes along, but is it painful? I imagine it’s not terribly comfortable to poop on your bed when your legs can’t carry you elsewhere, but does the morning light still bring hope? When we stumble into the kitchen for coffee and food and all the morning rituals of our home, is there still a thrilled little voice that goes off in his head: Movement! = People! = Scratches on my head! When we lie with him and he shimmies with the same nimbleness he always has just to give us better access to his belly, groaning his long lazy groans of rapture, does it make the rest worth it? When we help him to the yard and he free falls onto the grass or the leaves or the snow, burrowing his muzzle, rolling until we call him in, is he reveling in what he is still able or underscoring what little else there is?

To me, today, this remains a tough call. Still, I wonder, does Booker still want to be here as much as we still want Booker to be here? And if I wonder this we’re probably closer to an answer than I’d like to admit.

We’ve gone through two recent stretches where we thought we were going to lose him—days that seemed to represent not just funks but permanent deterioration—yet both times it was as if he heard our tearful late-night conversations and buoyed himself back up. We even had what can only be described as a goodbye party for him. That was four months ago. A few days after, I had the initial conversation with our vet during which I cried so much that my eyes swelled up and I had to ice them with a bag of frozen peas—a technique I owe to a particularly sad break-up. (Thanks, twenties!)

The only animals I’ve ever had to euthanize were in emergent, traumatic distress (internal bleeding, a burst tumor, kidney failure). I’ve never had to make a choice for them—there was no choice. So I had a lot of questions for Booker’s vet, who is wonderful on many levels, but is also one of Booker’s biggest fans. (The feeling is mutual.) She started by telling me that for him she would come to our house if that is where we want to do it. That relieved me. But then I thought of Safari, who Booker raised as much as we did—where would he be? Our vet said that usually for the actual procedure other animals are kept out of the room, but afterward it could be important to let them visit the body as a way of finding their own closure. This made sense to me. She said the only thing to consider if she came to our home is that it would be up to us to deal with his body. In other words, if we’re planning on having him cremated we will have to get him to the pet crematory ourselves. When you euthanize at the office, she explained, the crematory sends a vehicle at the time of your appointment. It was the one time I laughed that day. I needed it desperately, that ridiculous image of my husband and me, wrecked with grief, trying to get our gigantic dead dog into the back of the car. I’m still not sure how we will do it.

Or when.

For now, my husband and I check in with each other almost weekly about how we think he’s doing. We talk openly with our five-year-old about how old Booker is. We emphasize that he’s having a tough time. “Yeah,” our boy says. “He’s probably going to die soon.” Then, with growing concern, he starts listing the names of his grandparents, asking how old they all are. We have slowly become more comfortable—not with the idea of Booker’s dying, but with all the vocabulary that precedes death. We aren’t there yet, but we can talk about it. You could say, like Booker, we’re stuck.

We can see the here, our life with Booker—our kitchen with the disabled but determined old dog asleep in it; the sight of the blue plastic bags of poop on the porch, waiting to be carried to the trash; the feel of his weight against the harness strap as we walk him to and from the door. And we can see the there, our life without Booker—our wide-open future kitchen just as it was when we moved in; no dog bed; no poop bags; no cheap rugs spread out on the linoleum floor to offer his wobbly legs some traction. But we can’t see how we get from here to there, how we pass through the unpassable—how we make the decision; how we hold our dog until he is still; how we watch as our other dog explores him one last time; how we surrender his body; how we explain to our children that Buh-ber is gone; how we ever come home again.

– Chloe

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Axl

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He was the last dog in the last cage.

My roommate Peter had convinced me to come with him to the South LA pound. “Just to look.” The potential adoptees were jumping up and down, barking and pawing at the glass barriers. Except for one. Curled up in the far corner of the final kennel was a ball of fur. “Who’s that?” I asked.

It took two staffers to coax him out of the cage. He didn’t want to look up. He had a snout like a kangaroo and a head that was too big for his small body. He looked up at me with wide, fearful eyes as they brought him out. He didn’t want to run around or sniff things. He quivered with fear. When I went to pet him, he cowered like he’d been hit.

He’d been dumped at the pound twice. He’d never acted that way until he was returned the second time, a staffer explained. “He’s already had all his shots so you could take him today,” she said. I must have a thing for hard luck cases. I signed the papers. He was so scared that he couldn’t walk out of the pound. Peter had to carry his shaking body to the car.

On the ride home I sat next to him in the backseat, stroking his fur and talking to him while Peter and I discussed what to name him. “Paradise City” by Guns N’ Roses was playing on the radio, so we called him Axl. Later, I would joke that the two had other similarities: They were both redheads who liked to pee on things.

When we brought him home, Axl had an eye infection, kennel cough, and worms. He was 28 pounds. “I don’t want a dog that gets too big,” I had said at the pound. They told me he’d gain another 10 to 15 pounds. His giant paws suggested otherwise. He grew to nearly 80 pounds and was amazingly strong. Several times he yanked so hard on his leash—at the sight of a squirrel, a cat, another dog—he nearly dislocated my shoulder.

Axl had a double-coat of thick orange fur, spots on his tongue, a large, curled tail, and the most adorable underbite. For years I figured he was some sort of lab and chow mix. One day, Cris Dupont called me and said, “I know what your dog is! Dr. Phil has the same dog. Axl’s a jindo!” Jindos are a popular breed in Korea, where they are known for their willfulness, intelligence, and fierce loyalty to a single owner. That sounded like Axl.

For the first several years of his life, I was a freelancer and worked largely from home so Axl and I spent almost every day together. When I sat down at my desk to write, he’d plunk himself down behind my chair. When I went to the bathroom, he’d guard the bathroom door. When I’d go to the kitchen for a snack (how the typical writer spends approximately 72% of each workday), he’d perch himself under the table, his ears poking out as he waited for treats. I suspect his early abuse had made him wary of humans. When new people visited my pad, he’d growl and follow them around, making sure to place himself between them and me until they proved they could be trusted. Once he decided you were okay, he was eager for snuggles and scratches and affection.

For such a ferociously protective dog, he was remarkably affectionate. When I was sad and sobbing he would jump on my bed, lick my tears, and look at me as if to say, “Why so sad?” Or he would flop down with a heavy sigh and lay his head next to mine until I felt better. He loved to race back and forth between the living room and the bedroom, leaping onto the bed over and over again. At night he was my furry space-heater; he loved to curl up next to me.

If Axl was wary of humans, he loved his fellow canines. He NEVER barked first at other dogs. He stopped to sniff every dog he met and he wanted to play with them all. Well into his golden years, he had the energy of a dog half his age. Seeing how bouncy he was, people often asked his age. When I told them—10, 11, 12, 13—they were amazed. “He still seems like a puppy,” they’d marvel.

For 13 years Axl was with me nearly every day. Lolling about the house, going on walks, riding in the car (Axl adored car rides), running around Runyon Canyon, waiting for treats, snuggling with me.

A little over a week ago he had a seizure. He shrugged it off. So did I, terror in my heart. A couple days later he started refusing food. An MRI revealed a large, probably cancerous mass around his spleen. It was time.

Like most dogs Axl was a better person than most people. I am grateful that for 99% of his life he was healthy, happy, and active. That his life was full of walks, expeditions, affection, and delicious snacks. That he felt no pain as he passed away. That he was surrounded on his last day by people he knew and loved: Rob, Sean, Bjorn, Anthony. He was my true confidant and the sweetest soul I’ve known. I hope Axl knew how much he was loved. I hope he is in doggie Valhalla, a land where catapults fire tennis balls and Frisbees round the clock, where squirrels never mind being chased, where cars can be hailed with a bark and the windows are always rolled down, where steaks rain from the sky, and where the green lawn never ends.

Rest in peace.

Axl Rose Shatkin
2001 – 2014
The Best Dog Ever

– Elina

Mona

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In remembrance of Mona, our beloved standard poodle, who was the smartest, sweetest, and altogether best dog we could ever have imagined.  She lived for almost fifteen years, inspiring us with her love of life and constant affection.

– Jim and Anita Halverson

Betty

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The Sunday before she died was a beautiful and rare sunny early spring day in Portland.  We spent the morning in the garden doing the first yard work of the year.  Betty, our 10-year-old Pit Bull mix lay in the sun on the porch, soaking up the warmth.  For a few days, she hadn’t been eating.  But that had happened before.  She would become sort of disenchanted with her food for a chunk of time, eating only once every few days.  And then, after a week, she would be back to normal.  So we didn’t worry too much.  She didn’t really seem like herself that afternoon as we walked to the community garden, but my concern dissipated as soon as we got to the garden—Betty’s usual behaviors started back up:  barking at people arriving (because of her breed, the mom arriving with her kids made them stay away from her, even though all she wanted was to say hello and lick their hands) and whining when I walked too far away from her.  Betty’s whining was sort of a “bane of our existence” kind of thing for most of her 9 years with us.  It was, as usual, high-pitched and pathetic, but when she was really anxious (which was often) it would take on a grating, desperate, growling sound.  Betty was a worrier and a whiner, but all out of love.  She was desperate, always, to be with her people.

She came to us in 2004, a year after my husband and I had married.  I was a first year teacher, he was in his second year of law school.  Both of us had grown up in families in which we weren’t allowed to have dogs:  mine because of allergies and his because of the theory that city dogs didn’t have the best lives.  We had both always yearned for a dog and we were finally able to get one.  We knew we wanted to adopt a shelter dog and we were drawn to Pits because of their history of being misunderstood, abused, and put down.  Betty arrived at our house one sunny Seattle afternoon in the trunk of the car belonging to a man who had been fostering her.  She had been rescued from a shelter in Oregon days before she was to be put down and then fostered in Seattle with various families.  She was a bundle of nerves and energy—she never held still, not for a moment, and she was absolutely desperate to be loved.  We took her for a walk with the foster owner and despite the fact that she pulled us around the block, despite the fact that she whined out of excitement and anxiety the whole time, we decided to keep her overnight to see how we got along. Continue reading

Dickens

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November 14, 1997 –– January 28, 2013

I would like to take a moment to remember a very special girl. Not your usual Labrador retriever, Dickens seemed to understand the “Labrador” part of herself better than the “retrieving” part. In our summers in Canada, people would come to our island to witness the famous dog who was afraid of water. Nonetheless, she has certainly lived an adventurous life; almost dying from a rattlesnake bite, attacked by a porcupine, and undergoing surgery to remove a clam lodged in her throat. She starred in various home-movies featuring her in large frumpy dresses … very good at playing the “Norma Rae” type character, though she often struggled with staying awake during a scene. Laryngeal paralysis was Dickens’s last battle, one that she couldn’t win. Struggling for air, she was uncomfortable and frightened. Relieving her of the pain and fear, the girl is finally at rest. Despite her unfortunate habit of eating anything and everything foul, Dickens was the greatest friend I have ever known. She never failed to be there for me when I most needed her love and support. This past Christmas vacation, I was sick with a high fever of 104. Though it was hard for her to stand up, she managed to walk her way over to my couch and sit beside me, resting her head in my hands. You’ll always be my favorite girl, Dick. I’m blessed to have had you for these past fifteen years. Rest in peace girly.

– Everett

Roselle

Though it’s impossible to get past the central truth of September 11th, 2001 – that nearly 3,000 people were killed as they went about what felt like another normal, albeit extraordinarily beautiful, fall day – we have all read and clung to the incredible stories of survival of that day in an effort to at least try. We’ve read about the people who got out, who reunited with their loved ones, after all; we’ve heard stories of first responders working tirelessly for days; we’ve heard about the nearly 300 search and rescue dogs who worked just as tirelessly by their side. Of course, there are never enough stories of survival when thousands still died. But some stories are so remarkable they bring life back into focus again. The story of a yellow lab named Roselle is such a story. Somehow I only just learned of it, eleven years later.

She was a guide dog for Michael Hingson, a blind man who worked on the 78th floor of Tower One. And that’s where they were when American Airlines Flight 11 struck between the 93rd and 99th floors. Roselle calmly led Michael (and others) down 78 flights of stairs and out onto the street. They were two blocks away when the tower collapsed. Despite the dense air and falling debris, they found their way together into a subway station where they were safe.

Michael emphasized that working with a guide dog is a team effort. Many people mistakenly think that it’s the dog doing all the work when, in fact, it’s his job to tell Roselle where he wants to go and her job to get him there. Roselle was Michael’s fifth guide dog, and though all of them had expertly guided him through many an actual normal day, it was Roselle who saved his life.

She died at the age of thirteen in the early summer of 2011. Here she is with her grateful person.

– Chloe

Freckles

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There are many different kinds of love. There is love between humans, love between animals, love between humans and animals. And then there is the love between a woman and her dog. It’s a place where innocence and trust collide, joy and sorrow meet, life and death breathe. This is the love that is hardest to grieve, hardest to let go, hardest to say goodbye to. Such was the love I had for my Freckles. This is her story.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009. Ordinary in every way, at least the ways that matter. But it was the last day of life for Freckles, my poodle, and it was something I did not know. At least I think I didn’t; I don’t know. Denial can be so strong when one is faced with loss. It’s a funny thing – it promises today will be no different than yesterday. And because you love, you listen.

Freckles appetite had waned. She’d even been turning her nose up at the canned food I’d give her as a special treat, something she used to love so much. I made her grilled chicken with rice and broth. She’d eat the chicken and leave the rest, sniffing at it, then walking away. I made her pancakes, a favorite. They sat in her dish untouched. She wasn’t keeping much down. And she slept and slept, not particularly unusual for a dog of 15. Most days she just wanted to snuggle and sleep. And I had convinced myself that her loss of appetite had more to do with less physical activity than an actual medical problem. She still enjoyed short walks and was occasionally able to jump up on the sofa despite her arthritic joints. So that morning, before I left for a few hours, I gingerly lifted her up on my king-size bed, high off the ground and completely inaccessible to her, her favorite place to sleep.  I wrapped her up in her favorite brown blanket, a soft mix of fleece and fuzz, arranged her stuffed animals, and kissed her goodbye. She fell asleep quickly. I left the house, Freckles safe in bed. I would be home soon, and all would be well. Continue reading

Zoe, Tasha & Fritz

It was coming home that felt the best.

The sound of her short and electric snorts mixed with the tap-dancing of her paws towards the door always brought me to a place of pure childhood. A place where there were no bills to pay, or jobs to hold – it was a place for a girl and her dog.

Zoe wasn’t the kind of dog I had grown up with. Before her, there was Tasha, a large and calm German Shepherd. She had loved me in the way a grandmother loved the newborn that gave her that title. I would lay with her on a fur-laden dog bed and wrap my small arms around her mane. I remember the way she smelled – like autumn and hay. It was comforting to look into her large, dark eyes, and there were many nights that I cried myself to sleep with her because she was the one who understood.

My pup before her – my very first dog – was Fritz, a German Short-Haired Pointer. I remember that he was fast. He had a sharp, whiplike tail, and his hair was short and flat against his skin. Fritz liked to escape and roam the neighborhood, searching for squirrels, I imagine. We had a large, chain-link-fenced dog yard in the back for him with a door that latched open and shut.

I remember having to lure him back into the yard with a trail of sliced bologna. He was always a sucker for deli-meat. It was like winning a gold metal in the Olympics when I had gotten him completely into the gate with me. There was a lot of jumping and shouting – if you could imagine a denim-clad seven-year-old with light-up shoes and sparkled stretch pants doing such a thing.

But Zoe was much different. She was small and not German at all. I was 15 years old when we went to some lady’s house and saw her for the first time. The tiniest Boston Terrier I had ever seen. I had sat on the foreign kitchen floor, criss-cross style, and plopped the small pup inbetween my legs. She cozied herself and looked up at me – her eyes, the biggest feature on her body. Continue reading

Bony

Growing up, our family always had black cocker spaniels, going back, at least, to my mother’s childhood. Bony (hardly… his large head, majestic like a male lion, his sturdy body larger than today’s overbred, overeager-to-please and dainty versions; his official name simply was Ebony) was our family dog from my middle single digits, right up to my seventeenth year. Thus, Bony – always offering up only empathy, never a discouraging word – saw me through the most traumatic years of change from a young boy to… to, well, a young man with a serious girlfriend.

To describe Bony as noble is to underestimate him. A loyal family dog – he devotedly loved his family and was, in turn, loved by them – he also could be a loner. Once, when the family moved to a new neighborhood, he decided he liked his old stomping grounds better and walked back, 3 miles, crossing many busy suburban roads. His noble good looks made him quite a ladies man (we knew no one in the fifties who “fixed” their dogs), and for this aspect of his loner-life, he would disappear for a few days once or twice a year. We never met his other family(ies) but have no doubt some of our more far-flung neighbors wondered why their little Fluffy Sweet had yet another litter.

Bony’s death was as noble as his life. Clueless as we were that he was even sick since he displayed no symptoms (yet, he knew…), he wandered away in the late autumn and was gone for several days. Thinking he was tending to his other family – or creating a new one – we were not overly concerned and expected his imminent return.

On a cold, rainy Saturday night my serious girlfriend and I were in our family room watching television. Knock on the door. Rarely seen across-the-street neighbor.  Dead dog hidden under piles of leaves behind my shrub border. Think he may be yours….

As the only family member home that cold, wet night, it fell to me to identify the body.  Stricken with a grief I had never known, I quickly gathered up the serious girlfriend and took her home… much to her surprise and displeasure. I knew then and there she had to be rear-view mirror material – and soon was. Until this telling episode, nothing had separated us.

Digging the grave myself the next day, face awash with salty tears mixed with fresh rain, and then burying this noble canine (perhaps gaining some of his wisdom during this grim procedure), I knew the first phase of my life had come to an end and I became a man.

– Fred (For Chloe on her birthday from her loving Pa)

Woody & Puddy

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Woody and Puddy are now together again in Heaven. Woody has been gone for two years now and I still have times when I just miss him so much that I can’t hold back the tears. Puddy, too. My love for animals has grown since I lost both of them. They just touch our lives like nothing else.

– Tom